I’m delighted to announce the completion of the manuscript for my new book, tentatively titled The Quality of Courage: Four Men in the Argonne, 1918. It’s been a long process, alternately intimidating and exciting—and ultimately rewarding. This is going to be a good book.
A Family Story
The journey began three decades ago. Working on my family genealogy, I traced my connections to the Scots-Irish settlers of the Upper Cumberland—the mountainous, forested borderland of East Tennessee and Kentucky. In childhood I spent a lot of time here, getting to know the poor but hard-working people of the region, and enjoying their storytelling, music…and food! Research revealed that I was descended from the uncle of famed Tennessean David Crockett, and that my third cousin was World War I hero Alvin C. York.
Learning about York—the devout but troubled Christian who captured 132 Germans in the Argonne Forest of France in October 1918—led me to wonder how he and other men experienced and overcame the trials of combat in that terrible war. I read hundreds of diaries and memoirs of soldiers, nurses and other participants from all nations with growing fascination, eventually publishing a bibliography titled World War I Memories . In the process I learned how neglected this war has been in the United States.
As of ten years ago, no one had ever written a serious history of the Meuse-Argonne: to this day, the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of the United States. That’s why I wrote To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. It was a labor of love, telling the battle’s story from the point of view of the doughboys who experienced it. The same feelings motivated my next book, Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Combat, 1917-1918.
The Lost Battalion
In the end, though, I came back to York, and to the few hundred men that he and his comrades were attempting to rescue when they entered the Argonne Forest. The “Lost Battalion” is one of the best-known episodes of American participation in the war, though it’s largely forgotten today. Composed of draftees from the 77th U.S. Division, most from greater New York City but many from New England and the mountain west, the Lost Battalion was cut off and surrounded for several days by German forces, who attacked it again and again with rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades, and flamethrowers.
Two remarkable men led the Lost Battalion (really companies from a number of different units) to safety. One was a quiet, intellectual, idealistic New York City lawyer named Major Charles Whittlesey. The other was a millionaire New York stockbroker named Captain George McMurtry. Through their total dedication and sacrifice, these officers, with other heroes such as Captain Nelson Holderman of California, held the Lost Battalion together.
Who were these men, and what did they represent? Many of the doughboys in the Lost Battalion, even among the westerners, were recent immigrants to the United States who had lived in poverty and then been drafted to fight. Back home, many people questioned their loyalty and wondered if they were really Americans. Through their bravery in the pocket, however, these soldiers melded into comrades and proved their patriotism. In the process, they redefined what it means to be an American.
Their story might never have been told accurately had it not been for a fourth man and unlikely hero: journalist Damon Runyon, sportswriter, war correspondent, and legendary chronicler of New York City. Writing from the front where other reporters were content just to hang around headquarters, Runyon met Whittlesey and Runyon when they emerged from the pocket—safe, thanks in part to a man they had never met named Alvin C. York. The journalist’s very first story in France was about the Lost Battalion. In it, he focused on the humanity of everyday soldiers who fought because they loved their comrades and their country, and did so without expecting or receiving thanks.
The war changed Whittlesey, McMurtry, York, and Runyon. One was embittered, another consumed. A third took his guilt and anguish and channeled it toward good, finding meaning in trading his celebrity to help the poor and underprivileged. The fourth melded their experiences into a narrative of New York City, and of America, helping to redefine a nation. The story of these four men is one of heroism, heartbreak, and redemption. Ultimately, it is a story of the human spirit.
In the coming months, leading up to the planned publication of my book on September 25, 2018, I will share insights into my research and writing, and reveal many of my discoveries.
Learn More About the Lost Battalion
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